Sunday, July 27, 2008

Traveling Shoes

I bring good news, Gentle Reader: I have given up my plan to post a poetic homage to the severed feet. I was going to call my poem either The Feet of Nanaimo or This Weird Flotilla.

But I keep thinking about those feet.

British Columbia still has the most, but now they're popping up in Sweden as well.

This is apparently how it works:

* When a body goes into the ocean it sinks to the bottom, where critters chew on it. They can strip it down to bones in about a month.
* The feet remain un-et because they are encased in a sock and shoe. Right feet tend to survive more than left because most people are right-handed and tie their right shoe tighter. (All of the right shoes found have been pristine. The only left shoe found was muddy and darkened.)
* Eventually the sea critters chew through the soft tissue of the ankle, severing the foot from the body - at which point the foot in its high-tech foamy covering bobs to the surface.
* The contemporary sneaker has a buoyancy and longevity that surpasses any other shoe. Well crafted, it does not fall apart easily. Made of space-age cushiony substances, it does not swamp easily. Your average loafer is not going to fare well in the deep - this phenomenon is limited to the likes of Nike, Reebok and New Balance.
* Sneakered feet can travel about 10 miles per day when bobbing in the Pacific.
* Ocean currents sometimes result in a selection of certain sorts of things going in certain directions. The selection of flotsam and jetsam on a beach is not as random as it may seem. It seems that sneaker-encased severed feet have a predilection for the Strait of Georgia.

In terms of discovering the identity of the feet, the types of shoe that survive are quite informative. The shoes that stay afloat and wash ashore tend to be higher end athletic shoes, and they have serial numbers. The five BC shoes were made in the 1999-2004 timeframe, and one of them was almost certainly purchased in India.

However, it seems that feet provide extremely little forensic evidence. All the police seem to be able to learn is sex and DNA - a foot does not provide any clue as to the age, height or ethnicity of its body. In this day of evidence-based cop shows that seems unlikely, but there you go.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Free Advice

I bumped into this recently... The Atlantic Monthly is starting an advice column and is asking for requests for advice "on anything under the sun." Wowee, I thought: I can ask anything! There must be tons of things I want advice on.

Haven’t thought of anything yet.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Big Political Issue of Our Time

If the American sub-prime crisis has taught us anything, isn't it that the small government/less regulation brand of politics DOES NOT WORK?

That the basis of conservatism is dangerous destructive ideology?

That conservatives everywhere have some 'splaining to do?


The Dark Knight (review)

- no spoilers -

If Christian Bale were to get an Academy award nomination for his portrayal of Batman in The Dark Knight (which is unlikely), he would have to be nominated for a supporting role. That pretty well sums up what's wrong with the movie.

In superhero movies the bad guy almost always steals the show. That's just the genre. The bad guy generally has the best lines and is played by a superior actor. Notable examples are Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina and Liam Neeson. Even in the old Batman TV show the villains were played by an array of great actors.

But even given the typical role of a villain in a superhero movie, in The Dark Knight we see too much of the Joker - and too much of it is fluff. That may be because the actor playing him died and the studio was unwilling to cut his scenes even though he wasn't originally slotted for so much air time. I don't know. Heath Ledger does an okay job, but the core of the movie should be Batman and his relationship with everyone else. Batman gets a bit shunted aside in this one. (Heck, "Batman" isn't even in the title.)

Having said that, there were other things wrong with the movie. I didn't hate it, but I did look at my watch a dozen times and by 90 minutes in (an hour from the end!) I was really, really ready for it to be over.

One thing the director doesn't seem to get is that you shouldn't blow things up just to show off your special effects budget. Satisfying movie destruction can be shocking, compelling, scary, traumatic, redemptive, funny - but it has to provoke some emotion. Probably the world's most satisfying car chase/wreck scene is the one at the end of The Blues Brothers. Dozens and dozens of police cars get smashed. The audience whoops and hollers. That's satisfying. In The Dark Knight many many things get blown up, but I found it all rather ho-hum. In fact, by the end I really didn't care what got blown up or who got killed. I just lost interest.

I wanted to enjoy the movie. I expected to enjoy it. I prefer a well-rounded superhero movie like the Tim Burton Batmans or Ironman, but I can also enjoy a superhero movie that's a bit cheesey or a bit thin. I like the superhero genre in part because they tend to have a dark edge. However, this movie took itself too seriously, and that is the ultimate mood-killer. Its portrayal of Batman tarnished the Batman brand, which is discouraging. In fact, it wasn't even really a superhero movie. It couldn't decide whether it was a summer blockbuster or a serious movie and it ended up just being pretentious and uneven.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Canadian Tax Laws Disadvantage the Self-Employed

In Canada, when a person works for a company as a regular employee, benefits are not taxable. The company pays premiums for health and dental benefits, CPP and so on at no cost to the employee.

But if the same person works for the same company on a contract basis and the company pays for the same benefits, the worker has to pay income tax on every dollar the company spends for their benefits.

There are a couple of ways to partially get around this, at least for the health and dental component. A self-employed worker can set up a Private Health Services Plan (PHSP) with a private insurance company. The worker then has to pay the insurance company 8-10% of all their health and dental costs, and that makes the health costs tax deductible - up to a limit of $1,500 a year. Noone over the age of 40 is going to get health and dental coverage for $1,500 a year. But in the personal tax laws there is some tax relief provided for health expenditures that are over 3% of income (to a maximum income of $63,000, which is $1,890) - expenditures aren't completely deductible, but there's some provision.

The PHSP is a messy way to handle the unfairness to contract workers. For one thing, the self-employed worker is out of pocket to the insurance company. For another, there is a restriction that you can only claim the PHSP expenditures on your taxes if your self-employment income is more than half of your total income for the year. Consequently, if you have health-related costs in January, lose your contract in February and get a regular job in March, you cannot claim the PHSP expenditures on your taxes - you're out the 8-10% you paid the insurance company.

It also seems crazy to hand this huge freebie to the insurance industry - they get to scoop up 8-10% with no effort and no risk.

It seems a principle of tax law fairness that people should not be disadvantaged by the way their job contract is created. Increasingly, companies like to hire people on a contract basis. It's true that there are tax breaks afforded to self-employed workers that regular employees don't get, but they don't turn out to be very much, at least if you're honest. For example, there's a deduction for working at home, but you're only allowed to deduct a small portion of your home expenses. First, you take the square footage of your home office and divide it into the total area of your house; say that's 10%. Then you work out how many days a week you work at home, say 5/7. In that example you can deduct about 7% of your home expenses. Similarly, you can deduct a portion of your car costs based on the percentage of your driving that is work-related.

Revenue Canada should reform the tax laws for self-employed workers to create parity with regular employees on the tax implications of benefits. Health and CPP premiums should be tax-deductible, at the very least.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Taxes and the Environment

Environmentally-minded politicians like Stephane Dion and Elizabeth May seem to assume that environmental taxes should be revenue neutral. In particular, the plan always seems to be to reduce income tax by the same amount as the consumption tax. This is wrongheaded, because:

1. Income taxes are progressive. Consumption taxes are not. We need some consumption taxes, but we should not shift away from income tax.
2. Environmentally-based consumption taxes, such as gas tax, should be used to move our society to a less oil-dependent state. The revenue should be used to subsidize public transit, to promote alternative energy sources, and to help people transition to less polluting lifestyles.

The parking lot at any mall is full of SUVs, vans and pickup trucks. Big buses chug along with a handful of passengers, if that. Ontario homeowners flagrantly waste energy, meaning that we're blanketed by pollution from the Nanticoke coal-burning generators - which our current provincial government wants desperately to shut down, but can't at current consumption levels.

Nothing is going to change without sustained higher prices for oil. When the price increase is caused by taxes, we have revenue to help people deal with the transition.

If the environment turns into a full-blown crisis, then we need to address it with a holistic vision of our society, not blinkered policies that see only the environment. We need to move into a new way of operating that preserves certain principles, such as modest income redistribution. This isn't like a war, when there are privations for a short period. This is about finding a permanent way to operate our society in a more environmental way.


Opening Night of the Elora Festival

My love for the Elora Festival was all summed up in the final curtain bows for last night's performance of Handel's Solomon. Conductor Noel Edison first motioned for the soloists to take their bows, then key members of the orchestra, then the whole orchestra, and finally the choir. The audience applauded enthusiastically for everyone, but when the choir rose from their seats we roared.

It's not often that I feel a sense of community in an audience. At the opera there are lots of opera lovers but everyone keeps interrupting the performance to clap and there are a bunch of dolts who cough without muffling the sound. At Stratford the audience tends to laugh at things that aren't funny and they applaud the first time an actor steps on the stage who they've seen on TV. On Broadway half the audience feels the need to check their cell phones during the performance. Everyone these days seems to give standing ovations to everything.

But at Elora I feel at one with the crowd. Year after year this amazing thing happens for a few weeks in the summer, and it's like nothing else the rest of the year. It's the quality of the choir and conductor, the musical choices and the acoustics in the Gambrel Barn and church venues, but it's also the ambiance - milling around outside the barn with performers and audience, seeing familiar faces in the choir and volunteer ranks, getting distracted by baby racoons during the performance, watching the sun set through the open barn doors, driving home on back roads. It's just like nothing else.

Also, Noel Edison never lets us down. Last night featured a lot of great music, but the performance by Soprano Karina Gauvin stole the show. And then there was the choir. I'm eternally frustrated that my musical knowledge is too inadequate to let me understand what I appreciate about music. Noel seems to pick choir members with distinctive and beautiful voices, and individual voices emerge from the choral sound for a phrase, quickly slipping back into the mix. It creates a magical, elusive quality to the music. I just can't imagine anything more satisfying.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Hancock (review)

Superhero comic book writers were the forerunners to programmer nerds: supersmart, supercreative, outsiders, geeks. Or at least that's how I imagine them. The superheroes they created were a far cry from Archie and Jughead. They were complex characters with flaws to balance their strengths, philosophical quandries, self-reflection.

So it's really no surprise that superhero films are getting so interesting. The Superman movies were pretty run of the mill, but Tim Burton took the genre into new territory with the first two Batman movies. Since then there have been hits and misses, but the good superhero movies keep getting better. And better. And better.

I can't explain the reviews of Hancock. Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles hundreds of print reviews, rated it at 36%. The only thing I can think is that it doesn't follow the usual plot arc we're accustomed to for action films: it zigs and zags in ways that I thought were delightful, but apparently some people don't. Still, how did they miss what a great movie it is? How great the performances are by Will Smith, Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron, all of whom breathe real life into their characters? The one hiccup for me was a little thing with the moon at the end, but even that was sort of endearing.

The movie plays with the idea of superhero as monster - as a Boris Karloff/Frankenstein kind of monster. "I'm the only one of my kind" Hancock wails, as he accidentally leaves destruction in his wake even though he tries to do good. He's a man, not a monster, and so there is room for redemption, but redemption doesn't come through the usual channels: it's redemption as PR campaign, but redemption nonetheless.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Does Word Suck So Bad?

I'm a writer, and I am currently working on a book in Microsoft Word 2007. I have authored in XML, HTML, FrameMaker, PageMaker, Quark XPress, RoboHelp, WordPerfect, OpenOffice, TROFF, NROFF, Script, TeX... and earlier versions of Word. But I have never encountered an authoring tool that sucks as bad as Word 2007.

It is incredibly buggy. Some days I feel like I'm wrestling with a giant squid that is wrapping its tentacles around me sucking me down and as I valiantly hack off its arms they grow back, their destructive suckers adhering to my carefully chosen words and formatting and distorting, maiming, killing...

The really evil thing is that Word has the ability to learn. That is, it learns to stop destroying my doc in one way and then learns to destroy it in a new way.

For a while it did this: Whenever I formatted a paragraph, Word applied the formatting to every paragraph in my book. If I made a paragraph a bullet, every paragraph became a bullet. Then I would press Ctrl-Z to undo and Word would roll back the changes to all paragraphs but the one I wanted to change. This went on for a month or so, then it stopped.

Now it is targeting my internal cross-references. I created hyperlinks to headings within my book. A link will all of a sudden be corrupted in the most pernicious way. Several weeks ago I cut and pasted a section of text by highlighting it and pressing Ctrl-X. Although I have put thousands of things on my clipboard since then, Word remembers that section of text and it inserts it into the middle of a hyperlink. It does it to links that I haven't even changed recently. The phantom text just appears. I created headers for my chapters, and Word particularly likes to insert the phantom text into the headers of certain pages in a chapter. At first it was extremely difficult to delete the phantom text. Then the monster "learned" that I wanted to delete it and made it possible to do so, but it keeps inserting the text!

I also own a copy of Acrobat and I use it to create PDFs. I'm not sure whether it's Acrobat or Word that is the culprit, but again inexplicable bugs are cropping up. Like links are getting produced with internal numbering revealed.

I work responsibly. I pay for licensed copies of software. I put up with the chaos of automatic updates in order to get bug fixes in a timely manner. I read the Word forums to keep up with the experts on best practices.

I can always find a workaround. It takes time and it's annoying, but I can find a way to produce a decent book even with the insane bugs. But why oh why is Word so buggy? Why can't the world's largest software company make its flagship office product work reliably? Why does the new Word interface emphasize little-used bells and whistles and make key functionality more difficult to use? Why oh why???


Monday, July 07, 2008

Best Blog Post of the Year

For like days now I've been trying to think of a clever, witty comment to this brilliant post on Whimsley: My New Book: Explosion!TM but, well, I came up with nuthin. Some of the other commenters are pretty great.

The writing is extremely good, which is typical of Whimsley, but I think what really hit home was the humor laced with just a tad of bitter frustration. And the tiniest dash of manic obsession with his Moriarty, The Long Tail.

(Sadly, I can't even figure out how to make a superscript in blogger.)


Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Perils of Taking Things at Face Value

Back in 1999 during a presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush, Bush scored big points with almost everyone by saying he didn't believe in nation building and he thought the US should stop interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. Yet during his first term as president Bush invaded two countries, setting up puppet governments in both and running a full-scale military occupation of one.

Does that mean he didn't mean what he said?

I doubt it. He probably thought in his non-reflective way that it sounded like a good idea. Bush was way out of his league in the debate with Gore, but this one sound bite was enough to let many pundits say that the debate was tied. The statement was especially effective because he popped it out unexpectedly so Gore had no comeback. It was his "You, sir, are no John Kennedy" moment. It reeked of a gimmick thought up by political strategists.

A presidential contender should have a long-developed political philosophy and track record, but Bush had neither, and anyone interpreting his nation-building statement should have realized that it had very little weight - unlike, say, his heartfelt statements about the need for more religion in public life or his intention to nominate anti-abortion judges.

Recently we've heard a lot of reports that Obama has been shifting to the center on a number of issues. More recently there have been charges of flip-flops on Obama's part. But Obama never said that he's moving to the center: that's a matter of interpretation. Another interpretation of what he's doing (that Ted Koppel has given) is that he's toughening up his stance on a number of issues. Koppel believes that Obama's intent is to show he's tough enough to be president: tough enough to make the hard decisions, to see the whole picture and not just the partisan black-and-white. The growing charge that Obama is moving to the right, a hypocrite, a flip-flopper: that's spin, not fact.

Joe Lieberman was on This Morning with George Stephanopolous today, representing the McCain side in the presidential contest. Stephanopolous played footage of an Obama-Clinton debate in which the moderator demanded that they both take an immediate pledge to remove all troops from Iraq in short order even if military commanders advise against it. Stephanopolous interpreted Obama's response as agreement to the pledge. Lieberman argued that McCain wins the Iraq debate because the two candidates have similar viewpoints but McCain has been clear on his and Obama has flip-flopped.

You can't take too seriously any statement a candidate makes when backed into a corner. It's not flip-flopping in any real sense of the term. Candidates dodge while media tries to nail them to an issue, and occasionally media seems to score a hit. (Did you ever see Tim Russert asking a politician if they intended to run for president? During an interview with Condoleeza Rice, I think he asked the question point-blank at least two dozen times, while Rice desperately tried to say No while leaving the door open. It was ludicrous.)

Likewise, there are a lot of complaints that McCain has sold out, suddenly lost his values and become another person. With a long record as a moderate senator, suddenly he's appealing to the religious right. Well duh. That's the only way he could win the nomination. That's the only way he can win. I don't believe that McCain has changed at all. He's not necessarily lying either. He has moderated his stance on some issues and made some concessions: nobody rises in politics without doing that. In fact, the only politicians who don't moderate their stance based on the will of the public are the dangerous ideologues: the Hitlers and Thatchers.

It is fundamental to the concept of representative democracy that there's a push-pull between a politician leading the people and following the people. Sometimes you vote with your conscience and sometimes you vote with the polls. This applies to policy formulation in the campaign as well as policy formulation as an elected representative.

It's a fundamental aspect of communication that when you're talking, you're talking to someone, and as your audience changes, your message sometimes should too. The issues tend to be complex and multi-faceted, but politicians tend to have to discuss them in simplistic ways, and it isn't necessarily inconsistent to emphasize different parts for different people. Obama's Democratic base wants to end the war in Iraq, so he told them (I'm sure quite honestly) that that is what he intends to do. Now that he's in the general campaign he is talking about the need to pull out responsibly; I don't see any hypocrisy in that.

The only responsible Iraq exit strategy is one in which the US pulls out in a slow, careful way that doesn't plunge the country into civil war, but any candidate who admits that is labeled pro-war; they're under enormous pressure to say that their intention is to pull troops out immediately.

The best candidates are often the ones who change their minds or expose the nuances of issues, while candidates who adhere ridgidly to their message are often the least qualified.

It isn't necessarily lying to not do what you promise to do. The most notorious flip-flop I can think of concerns the re-election of Pierre Trudeau in 1974. Trudeau's most effective campaign plank was his opposition to wage and price controls, but after he won he implemented them (causing outrage and uproar around the country). I don't believe Trudeau lied: it was clear that he was sincerely opposed to wage and price controls (as was I). I don't understand the forces that caused him to implement them, but even a Canadian prime minister with a majority is not a total dictator. With the US implementing wage and price controls and inflation in the double digits, we should have foreseen that Trudeau might have to implement controls. I'm not saying that Trudeau has no blame in that disastrous policy, but that we as voters bear some of the responsibility too.

Politics is PR and marketing - and it can't be any other way because it's Darwinian. Politics is what it is, and it's up to us to interpret it intelligently. We should judge candidates on their actions before the campaign, not their promises and stump speeches; and to the extent that we believe them during the campaign, we should interpret every statement very carefully.


Friday, July 04, 2008

Dutch White Clover

Dutch white clover is a low-growing, attractive ground cover that can be planted with grass, with wildflowers, with other ground covers, or on its own. It can be walked on or mowed, and it grows in full sun to part-shade. It doesn't require fertilizer or herbicides, and it replenishes nutrients in the soil. It tolerates dog urine. It stays green in summer even when grass goes brown and dormant (as in my town, where we have severe restrictions on outdoor watering).

Dutch white clover was once in common use, but fell out of favor when herbicides became popular and the "putting green" style of lawn became the fad. Now that we're finally moving away from that model, it's a good solution to suppress weeds in a grass lawn or to plant in difficult-to-grow areas or, well, for anywhere. It can even be used to suppress chinch bugs.

Dutch white clover is distinct from wild clovers, which tend to grow higher. At Ontario Seed Co. (a Waterloo-based seed company and hardware store) you can purchase dutch white clover in small packets for $1.95 up to 2 kilo bags for $16.95. (It doesn't take a lot: two kilos should cover a couple of acres.)

For more information, see:

* Cornell University page on Dutch White Clover
* Nova Scotia site on establishing Dutch White Clover


If They Don't Do It, They Don't Win

The media and blogosphere are abuzz with the news: Obama is selling out. The Huffington Post led the charge with criticism that Obama is undercutting his own brand. Paul Krugman frets that Obama is abandoning his policy of change. Today's Globe & Mail chides, "Everyone does it. But Barack Obama claims not to be everyone."

There is a shockingly ignorant lack of context in all of this. In every election, candidates run different campaigns to win the nomination and to win the election. In the primaries they appeal to their base. In general elections they appeal to everyone. Ergo, they move to the center.

Moving to the center is a good thing because if a candidate wins they need to govern for everyone, not just their base. There is a tendency these days to remember Ronald Reagan as a great president who was able to move the country in a whole new direction. That's sentimental bollocks. He was a polarizing figure who horrified half the country with his seemingly endless military attacks on little central American states, his claims that trees pollute and that ketchup is a vegetable, his overtly phony actorly reading of speeches... he was an ideologue who moved the Republicans further to the right, for sure: What is there to celebrate about that?

Where did anyone get the idea that election campaigns, especially at the American presidential level, are situations where straight-talking rules the day? They aren't. It's a big complex game of chess.

Here's an example: In his first election for premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty signed an oath that he wouldn't raise taxes. After winning, one of his first acts was to create a new health care tax. I supported that tax. Why? Because (1) at the time Ontario was being screwed by the federal government and we didn't have sufficient revenues to run our health care system; (2) he was backed into a corner by a PR firm that was helping the anti-tax lobby and he would not have won the election without that pledge. During the election when he made the pledge, my only reaction was that I supported his signing of it only because I didn't believe he'd stay true to it. A very effective trick in an election campaign, in this case by a lobby, should not be allowed to set public policy.

During campaigns, candidates get forced to do all sorts of weird stuff in order to win: Obama is having to pose in front of American flags to counter attacks that he's unpatriotic and having to ask Mulsims to move out of photos because of rumors that he's Islamic. You could bet money that these actions are not things he wants to do, but that's politics.

I choose candidates like I hire employees. I look at their qualifications and their past actions. I listen to them carefully in the job interview, but I take very little at face value. (If you ask someone in an interview, "What are your three biggest flaws?", do you really expect to learn that they're lazy or pad their expenses?)

It might be easier for me to accept Obama's "move to the center" because I never got caught up in his audacity of hope/yes we can/change you can believe in/blah blah blah. But we elected the guy to win, and he's doing what he has to do to win. Let's give him some space already.